Monday, May 14, 1990

Stoppard's new math

Stoppard's New Math: 41 Actors, Half a Year, 3 Plays
By Campbell Robertson
New York Times
October 15, 2006

THE COAST Of UTOPIA,” Tom Stoppard’s sweeping three-part epic that will be populating Lincoln Center for the next six months, contains, among other things: 35 years of 19th-century Russian intellectual history; more than 70 roles; discussions of Hegel, Schelling, Pushkin and Kant; adulterous affairs, both secret and permitted; the revolution of 1848; scenes in Moscow, Paris, Nice, London, under a large chandelier, at a picnic, beside an ice skating rink. It examines the lives, public and domestic, of five forefathers of the Russian Revolution: Alexander Herzen, a writer and pioneering socialist; Mikhail Bakunin, an aristocrat turned anarchist; Ivan Turgenev, a poet and novelist; Nicholas Ogarev, a poet and close friend of Herzen’s; and Vissarion Belinsky, a brilliant literary critic. It also includes their lovers, families, colleagues, antagonists, hangers-on and one ominous, cigar-smoking cat.

If writing all that was a colossal undertaking, however, it may pale in comparison with the effort of getting it onstage. This play, the first part of which begins previews at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater on Tuesday, will be one of the biggest in Broadway’s recent history, up there with the Royal Shakespeare Company’s eight-and-a-half-hour “Nicholas Nickleby” in 1981.

Overseeing it all is the director Jack O’Brien. He has staged two Stoppard plays (“The Invention of Love” in 2001 and “Hapgood” in 1994, both at Lincoln Center) as well as “The Full Monty,” “Hairspray” and “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.” But he was daunted by “Coast,” which he saw with the designer Bob Crowley at the National Theater in London in 2002 . “Crowley and I looked at each other,” he recalls, “and said, ‘No way, José.’ I wouldn’t know where to begin.”

The New York production is, if anything, more complex.

Part 2 of the trilogy begins performances in early December, when it will play in repertory with Part 1 while Part 3 is in rehearsal. At the end of January the first two are joined by the third. After that, all three — “Voyage,” “Shipwreck” and “Salvage” — rotate in repertory through mid-March, including three eight-and-a-half marathon days when all three parts are performed together. And Mr. O’Brien had to line up a cast and crew that could remain available for that entire time.

Scheduling for any theater project is hard, and only getting harder. Directors shoehorn productions in between movies, musicals and road tours; and what with television series and movie deals, booking a top actor is like fitting in time with the Dalai Lama.

All of this is exponentially harder when you’re talking about six and a half months of constant rehearsals — full days and part days — and 115 performances, including the three marathon performance days. Even harder when it’s an ensemble piece, where the actor’s name will appear somewhere in the crowd below the title. And harder still when it’s at a not-for-profit theater, with its do-gooder pay scale.

But for Mr. O’Brien it wasn’t simply a case of finding willing actors: they had to be top-shelf, the kind that can pronounce the word “Premukhino,” and convincingly. So like the mastermind in a heist movie recruiting his own crackerjack team, Mr. O’Brien spent the spring and winter cajoling and persuading his first choices. The result of that long process is a glittery 41-member cast full of marquee names and six of the top designers in the industry.

Age was another challenge. The principal characters in “Coast” start the play in their teens and 20’s and end up in late middle age. After seeing “Brokeback Mountain,” Mr. Stoppard told Mr. O’Brien that he preferred younger actors who would eventually play old, as they did in the film, rather than older ones who would initially play young.

That was welcome news for Mr. O’Brien; with younger actors, the play would be sexier and more vigorous, less susceptible to the “snob hit” stigma that dogged the London production. But it often also means performers with young families and less financial security; in other words, actors who might not have the luxury to take on this kind of project.

“These people work all the time,” Mr. O’Brien said, “and that they would give us eight or nine months of their lives in the prime sort of moneymaking period. ...” He trailed off, but the meaning was clear.

Ethan Hawke, who was in Mr. O’Brien’s 2003 production of “Henry IV” at Lincoln Center, was the first actor on the list. At a series of lunches, the director gave him the hard sell. But even Mr. Hawke, a Hollywood star, has a family and a new house to support. “I hadn’t made any money in a long time,” said Mr. Hawke, who had been involved with a chain of artistically fulfilling but less than lucrative projects. “So I said, ‘I need to find a job that can happen this summer.’ ” After a few months of working in a Sidney Lumet film, “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead,” and a little rejiggering of the rehearsal schedule, Mr. Hawke was on board as Bakunin.

Mr. O’Brien then used him as bait with which to recruit other actors, as well as a benchmark for the age range (mid-30’s) of the other principals. But many actors that age have more lucrative opportunities in Hollywood.

Robert Sean Leonard, for example, was an obvious choice, having worked with Mr. Stoppard, Mr. O’Brien and Lincoln Center in 2001 on “The Invention of Love,” but he was booked with his role on the TV show “House.”

Jason Butler Harner said that the night before his scheduled audition of “Coast” he was walking around Greenwich Village in tears. A well-regarded Off Broadway actor, he had been trying to take the next step in his career, and he knew that a trilogy about Russian intellectuals was not necessarily the best way to do that. “In order to get work in New York it’s easier if you’ve had a series on the now-defunct WB,” he said.

So he skipped the audition. A few weeks later he was very close to landing a role on a television show, a respectable one with good writing, he said, for which he would receive more money than he had ever seen. He also kept hearing that “Coast” was still interested. In the end he picked the role of Turgenev over the TV series.

“It was the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make,” he said.

As each actor agreed, others followed. Mr. O’Brien got just about everyone he asked for, including Billy Crudup, Martha Plimpton, David Harbour, Richard Easton, Josh Hamilton and Jennifer Ehle, who is playing three different roles in the plays. (“At first, until I saw the schedule,” she said, “I thought that it was really inconceivable that I could do this.”)

Casting the more prominent roles, however, was only part of the challenge. The play is being understudied from within, meaning backup actors are drawn from the cast itself. In a typical production, actors would rehearse their understudy roles once performances were under way. But because of the repertory rehearsal schedule of “Coast,” the casting had to be done in a way that minimized the instances where understudies appear in the same scenes as the actors for whom they may substitute, since understudies need to rehearse separately. But with sprawling party scenes, in which almost every character has at least a few lines, the puzzle became incredibly convoluted.

Daniel Swee, Lincoln Center’s casting director, called it the hardest show he’s worked on. “I’ve cast a fair number of very large-cast shows, but this is definitely it,” he said.

“There are people I haven’t even had a conversation with yet,” Brian F. O’Byrne, who plays the central role of Herzen, said at one point several weeks into rehearsal.

The actors, a handful of whom took an informal trip to Russia in late August, came together as a whole in early September. A read-through of the play with Mr. Stoppard took a couple of weeks. Rehearsals for “Voyage” are now well under way, but work on “Shipwreck” won’t really begin until November.

“Usually there’s a place where you get to leave the interpretive process, after opening night, where you kind of go, ‘Now, we’re on to the next phase,’ ” Mr. O’Byrne said. “With this, we’re going to have opening nights, and they’re going to be like, ‘Yeah, boy, this is opening night, I’ll see you in the morning” to start it all over again.

Finding time for this project was hard for Mr. O’Brien too. Andre Bishop, the artistic director of Lincoln Center, knew right away that he wanted both Mr. O’Brien and Mr. Crowley, who had worked together on “Hapgood” and “The Invention of Love.”

But Mr. O’Brien, who is about as serene as a bag of crickets, wasn’t available, so the project stayed in limbo for the next few years. From time to time Mr. O’Brien and Mr. Stoppard discussed the trilogy, including once in 2003, when they happened to cross paths in Australia and spent a few days reading and re-reading the play in a Melbourne hotel room.

But about a year ago Mr. O’Brien’s date book opened just enough (in the spring of 2007 he’ll be directing a trilogy of one-act operas by Puccini for the Met), and the board at Lincoln Center Theater was satisfied with a $7.5 million price tag for “Coast.” So the play was on.

Lincoln Center’s plan, to stagger the openings a month and a half apart, with all three rotating in repertory in the last few weeks — “folding them in like egg whites,” Mr. O’Brien calls it — is a departure from the approach Trevor Nunn took at the National, where all three opened more or less simultaneously.

The rollout plan fit Mr. O’Brien’s conception of “Coast” as an orchestral piece, with three very different movements. That three-separate-plays-in-one idea, in turn, ended up complementing the schedules of the designers.

Mr. Crowley, who is also designing “Mary Poppins” this fall, was generally hesitant about designing another huge trilogy — it would be his third — and decided he needed an equal partner. He reached out to Scott Pask, a friend with whom he had never worked before. Mr. Pask agreed to split the trilogy: Mr. Crowley would focus on the first part and Mr. Pask on the second, and they would collaborate on the third.

For the same reasons the production will be using three lighting designers: Brian MacDevitt, Kenneth Posner and Natasha Katz, with each responsible for one play. (Their visions can’t diverge too greatly, because the plays will eventually be performed one after another.)

There will, however, be only one person on costumes. Asked if this was her most daunting project to date, Catherine Zuber, a veteran Tony winner, said that in 1999 she designed 6,000 costumes of varying historical periods for an 18 day-long festival in Switzerland.

But for most of those involved it’s the biggest project they’ve ever attempted. And if the commitment is remarkable, well, there’s a reason for it.

“When does anyone get a chance to do this, in this country, on the Broadway stage?” asked Mr. O’Byrne. “This is a dream job. I mean, I don’t think I’ll understand that this is a dream job until March, when we’re not rehearsing and we’ve just started playing it. But that period is only a couple of weeks at the end. So, until then it’s just, like, head down and O.K., we’re getting through this.”

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